Past Opposition To Same-Sex Marriage Could Hurt Republicans In The Future

A long history of opposing marriage equality could end up hurting Republicans even though that battle is over in this country.

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While many Republicans continue to resist the idea of legal same-sex marriage in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodgesone gets the general impression that many Republican, even some of the most conservative members of that party, are in some sense glad that the Court has resolved the issue for them. After all, when you look at the polls it was becoming exceedingly clear that the GOP was out of step with the rest of the nation when on the issue of whether there should be a legal right for gays and lesbians to marry. While the number of Americans who support that idea continued to rise, even on the even of the decision Republicans and conservatives remained one of the few demographic groups where the majority opposed it. Those numbers had admittedly shrunk from where they were in the past, and when you looked polls of younger Republicans you found broad support for the idea, but the party itself took the position that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Now, with the Court having spoken, the issue is arguably irrelevant. Yes, we are still hearing Republican candidates suggest all number of silly ideas in this area and local and state officials have gone so far as to say government employees are free to ignore the Supreme Court, but to a large degree this is just pandering to the social conservatives in the base rather than a policy initiative that the GOP is going to pursue in the future.

Given all of that, having the issue of marriage equality off the table should be a good thing for Republicans since it will be one less issue that voters might be turned off by when the go vote in November 2016. As Harry Enten notes at FiveThirtyEight, though, there’s at least some evidence to suggest that the party’s long opposition to marriage equality, even in the face of its inevitable triumph, will end up hurting Republicans at the voting booth:

A look at public opinion on same-sex marriage and what drives party affiliation suggests that Cruz, Walker and the other candidates on the right may be risking the party’s appeal in the general election. The Republican Party’s opposition to same-sex marriage is one of the top positions that may have kept voters from identifying with and potentially voting for the GOP.

Polling generally suggests that same-sex marriage is not a top issue for most voters. A February CNN/ORC survey found that just 17 percent of Americans said the issue of gay marriage would be “extremely important” in choosing a candidate to support for president — the lowest of any of nine issues tested.

But digging deeper provides a different perspective. Beyond the importance voters place upon it directly, gay marriage may have symbolic power because of the messages it sends to voters about the parties.

I’ve taken a look at individual responses from two 2014 Pew Research Center surveys. I wanted to see which of 14 issues (ranging from abortion to gay marriage to size of government) provided the most information about a person’s party identification after controlling for demographic factors like age, education, income, race, and religious attendance


In the Republican column, the coefficient for gay marriage is large and negative, meaning that supporting it substantially reduces the likelihood that someone will identify as Republican. In fact, based on the regressions, the only variable more predictive of Republican identification is whether a person believes health care coverage is the government’s responsibility. Gay marriage is more important than classic “wedge issues” like guns or abortion in predicting whether someone identifies as a Republican.

Let’s be clear about what these results mean. What they say is that if I meet you at a picnic and you tell me that you support gay marriage, that gives me a lot of information about whether you’re a Republican — more than almost any other attitudinal question I might ask you.

It’s still difficult to prove that support for gay marriage causes people not to identify as Republican, as opposed to merely being correlated with it. Voterssometimes first choose a party they like and then adopt that party’s position on an issue. Gay marriage has been a fairly polarizing issue, so it is possible that some voters are merely choosing the position that lines up with their party. Still, at least our method is controlling for demographics. Views on gay marriage still seem to matter a lot even once you account for those.

There’s more at the link, including a chart that makes Enten’s argument exceedingly clear. The point, though, is that there is at least some evidence that marriage equality is an issue that helps to define how at least some voters feel about a political party and influence what they think about a candidate from that party. Although Enten doesn’t go into this level of detail, one would imagine that this is doubly true for younger voters for whom this issue has long been something of a “no-brainer” and the opposition to it has come across, to them at least, as mean and heartless toward a group of people who wanted nothing more than to enter into the same legal relationship that other loving couples have always been able to enter into. That’s one reason why, regardless of the legal argument that one could make, the analogy between Obergefell and the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia has seemed so obvious to many member of the public. On the surface, they both involve two people who were being denied by the state the ability to legalize their relationship. Viewed from that perspective, the position that most Republicans were holding right up until the Supreme Court decision was one that most if not all supporters of marriage equality were likely to see as unreasonable at best and bigoted at worst.

In the wake of the Court’s decision, it seems as though Republicans ought to start thinking about being a little more circumspect about how they approach this issue at the very least. Some candidates, such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, clearly understanding this given their reaction to the decision, which basically can be summarized as saying that they disagree with it but it is the law of the land and should be respected. Other candidates, though, such as Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Rick Santorum, are taking are far different and more defiant approach. Given the fact that these are candidates who have been pandering to the social conservatives from the beginning it’s entirely unsurprising, of course, but the danger for the party as a whole is that these voices become the most strident and that the public starts seeing the GOP as not only opposed to marriage equality but also willing to defy the nation’s highest Court. George Will does an excellent job of cataloging just how unhinged some of the responses from these candidates have been over the past week, and concludes that ”Sixteen months before the election, some candidates are becoming too unhinged to be plausible as conservative presidents.”

Since early polling is already showing that most American support the decision, vehement opposition to it isn’t necessarily a good long-term strategy for Republicans. At some point, it not only reinforces pubic perceptions that were created during the political fights over marriage, but it also casts the party as unwilling to accept defeat. Indeed, as we head into 2016 Republicans would probably be advised to do everything they can to get people to forget that they were on the wrong side of history on this issue.

This hard line response to Obergefell is obviously driven by the need of these candidates in particular to curry support from the hardest of the hard right wing of the Republican Party. Just based on the reactions I’ve seen online over the past week, many of these people are obviously not ready to accept the fact that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, and candidates that take that position aren’t going to fare very well in primaries where these voters are dominant such as Iowa and South Carolina. Over time, perhaps, we’ll see the rhetoric die down a bit, and there may even by some Republicans who will suggest during the run up to the convention next year that the party should drop its platform position opposing marriage equality or advocating for the right of states to make same-sex marriage illegal. Bringing something like that about probably won’t be easy, but it will also likely get a far better reception than it did in 2012 when a similar effort was made by a small group of Republicans who were on the record supporting marriage equality. Given that, this issue may still be an albatross around the GOP’s neck in 2016, and given the fact that its the very voters who the party needs to attract that could be turned off by its history on this issue, that doesn’t bode well for whomever the Republican nominee ends up being.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Law and the Courts, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Tony W says:

    Nobody thinks they’re the next George Wallace….

  2. stonetools says:

    In the immortal words of Sarah Palin, conservatives don’t retreat, they reload!
    Demonizing the gays worked for them in the past -and is popular with their base.They’re coming off a successful election cycle too, so they’re going to stck with what to them looks like a winning strategy.
    I’m afraid that nothing but a devastating electral defeat is going to cure the Reoublicans of gay-baiting, and maybe not even that, since they don’t care much about facts.

  3. Gromitt Gunn says:

    I may be projecting some of my own biases here, but it seems like the category of “Independent” in political polling is now dominated by a group that could be best described as “I’m an economic conservative or moderate who *should* be a Republican, but they have become so retrograde on social issues that I simply *can’t* do it.”

  4. KM says:

    How can something like this possibly bite them in the ass?

    In a review of Hood County Clerk Katie Lang’s emails obtained through an information request, her comments to staff were strident: “We are not issuing them because I am instilling my religious liberty in this office.

    Notice the “we are not” because of the singlular “my”. She decided for her entire office, regardless of her employees personal religious beliefs. She’s already had to back down because there was no support (she was “misreported and misconstrued” poor thing….). Her employees are voraciously complaining they were thrown under the bus by the grandstanding AG in emails gone public. Haters going out on a limb and finding to their shock how very shaky it was and the promised safety net in tatters below. They have no idea what to do because they were lied to and never given actual advice and procedures.

    When you piss off your own side because you’re too busy trying to score points, you don’t have a bright future. Keep doubling down on the stupid, guys – winning strategy there!

  5. bookdragon says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: That would pretty well describe me and both of my parents. All former Republicans, but the party left us long ago…

  6. Argon says:

    Harry Enten:

    A look at public opinion on same-sex marriage and what drives party affiliation suggests that Cruz, Walker and the other candidates on the right may be risking the party’s appeal in the general election…

    Um, duh?

  7. Just Me says:

    And yet up until a few years ago Obama and Hillary Clinton were opposed to SSM.

    I don’t think Huckabee, Cruz or Santorum are serious candidates anyway.

  8. Davebo says:

    There’s an election next year. And you can’t really be sure all of those 76 year old voters are going to make it to 81 years.

    Strike while the iron is ambulatory.

  9. bandit says:

    Like HRC and Obama???

  10. Kylopod says:

    @Just Me:

    And yet up until a few years ago Obama and Hillary Clinton were opposed to SSM.

    I’ve seen this argument a lot from the right, and it doesn’t hold water.

    For one thing, while Obama and Hillary did oppose SSM, they never engaged in anything approaching the apocalyptic, sky-is-falling rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the likes of Huck, Cruz, and Santorum. They basically said “I believe marriage is between a man and woman” and left it at that. Furthermore, they both had long supported civil unions, which it’s now abundantly clear (in case anyone ever doubted it) were the first step toward SSM. Neither of them had ever supported a constitutional amendment to ban SSM, and Obama had consistently opposed pretty much all legislative attempts to stop it, from DOMA to California’s Prop 8. Obama’s position before 2012 was something I liked to call ASSMINO–Against Same Sex Marriage In Name Only. When he officially flipped, he actually didn’t change a single policy position as far as his presidential powers were concerned.

    It’s fair to fault the Dems for some level of cowardice on this issue. Obviously they were scared of the so-cons, and they didn’t grow out of this fear until there were polls indicating the public had come around. In short, they were politicians.

    But if you think history will be as harsh toward the Dems as it’ll be toward the GOP on this issue, you’re deluded. Lincoln went to his grave as an opponent of civil rights for black Americans, but history has mostly forgiven him, since most people didn’t lose sight of the big picture as your argument does.

  11. An Interested Party says:

    And yet up until a few years ago Obama and Hillary Clinton were opposed to SSM.

    Of course there is a difference between being in a political party that fully supports rights for everyone as opposed to being in a political party that has a raging homophobic base…

  12. JohnMcC says:

    @An Interested Party: The Repubs don’t have a Joe Biden (“the best man God ever made”) to make a surprising out-of-bounds statement that he has no problem with SSM and thereby breaking the conventional-wisdom logjam. They’ve got the Donald and Family Research Council.

    Otherwise the two parties are the same. No question about it.

  13. OzarkHillbilly says:


    Otherwise the two parties are the same. No question about it.

    Obamacare. Tell me again how the parties are the same?

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Given that, this issue may still be an albatross around the GOP’s neck in 2016,

    Given also the continued all out war against abortion that has been waged by the part of the GOP base ever since Roe v Wade, and it is hard to blame anyone for concluding that they will try to do the same to SSM.

  15. superdestroyer says:

    Considering that Republicans are irrelevant to governance and policy in the U.S. , how can their positions on homosexuals make them any more irrelevant.

    What idiot Republicans like Rubio and Bush fail to understand is that homosexual marriage is not the end but the beginning. It is only a matter of time before schools, universities, local governments, and private employers are forced to collect information on sexual orientation to comply with federal regulations.

    What should be obvious is that the real turning point for homosexuals civil rights is when some organization dominated by homosexuals is sued by heterosexuals for discrimination. Until that lawsuit occurs, homosexuals will be at the top of the political correctness totem pole and dominated politics in the U.S.

  16. JohnMcC says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Oh Jeez, I wondered just as I clicked ‘post comment’ if I should put some kind of snark alert in it. Obviously (I think) the Repubs are captives of a lunatic mob.

  17. bill says:

    the main reason is that the msm will be happy to remind the general public about it- but will squelch any mention that both hillary and obama just came out of their closets “for” it. and don’t get your hopes up that they’ll mention that hillary’s hubbie was the one who signed doma…..god forbid.

  18. Kylopod says:


    and don’t get your hopes up that they’ll mention that hillary’s hubbie was the one who signed doma

    The MSM has brought up this fact over and over, which is blazingly obvious to anyone who actually reads the MSM instead of believing whatever th right-wing crank websites tell you to believe about the MSM. Here are just a few examples picked up by a Google search:

    NBC News, 6/26/13: “Among the most prominent voices to hail the Supreme Court’s decision calling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional was the Democratic president who signed it into law: Bill Clinton.”

    CNN, 3/24/2013: “Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law when he was president. Now he’s asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn it.”

    Washington Post, 6/26/13: “DOMA was passed with bipartisan majorities of Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton — who put out a statement Thursday praising its demise.”

    HuffPost/AP, 6/26/13: “Former President Bill Clinton is welcoming the Supreme Court decision striking down a provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, which he signed into law in 1996.”

    Bill Clinton’s passage of DOMA and later disavowal of it has been covered up only in the delusional, paranoid mind of right-wingers such as yourself. Furthermore, if Republicans not named Portman or Cheney did what he did and repudiated their past opposition to SSM, we might be a little more forgiving.

  19. bill says:

    @Kylopod: “mentioning” it and “highlighting” it are 2 very different things. note that they aren’t faulting him for signing it, just lauding him for being so brave as to disavow it. it’s kinda sickening but expected of these wonks.
    but that’s old news- they treat hillary like she’s some sort of gay rights activist yet she was against it in her last stab at the ring.

  20. Kylopod says:


    “mentioning” it and “highlighting” it are 2 very different things.

    Um….this is what you stated earlier:

    “and don’t get your hopes up that they’ll mention that hillary’s hubbie was the one who signed doma”

    Shifting the goalposts, now, aren’t we?

    note that they aren’t faulting him for signing it, just lauding him for being so brave as to disavow it.

    Where? Where did any of the quotes I mentioned laud him, let alone accuse him of bravery? All they do is describe the fact that the president who signed DOMA is now praising its demise. Are you on crack? Seriously.

    they treat hillary like she’s some sort of gay rights activist yet she was against it in her last stab at the ring.

    The Human Rights Campaign gave her a 95% rating on gay rights when she left the Senate. I think that is pretty fair evidence of her being a “gay rights activist.” Of course her record isn’t perfect like, say, Senator Bernie Sanders. I didn’t realize you were merely attacking her for being insufficiently progressive. If that is the case, my apologies: welcome to our side!